- Smith at the Seattle Times shack / Photo by John Jeffcoat
(Bret Fetzer, US, 2014, 77 mins.)
My Last Year with the Nuns doesn't simply depict a Catholic childhood, but a Seattle one, as well. In local actor Matt Smith's case, that means a Capitol Hill that doesn't exist anymore.
Just as Jonathan Demme turned Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming to Cambodia into a film, director Bret Fetzer has done something similar with Smith's one-man play. While Gray recounted his experience acting in Roland Joffé's 1984 film, The Killing Fields, Smith looks back at 1966, his eighth and final year at St. Joseph's School.
Smith, a lanky 60-year-old with blue-grey eyes, starts out by sharing personal memories before taking on thornier issues, like the kind of geographical racism that made it possible for a person on one street to take out a loan and impossible for a person on another to do the same (he frequently refers to the "red line" dividing Roy Street). But he slides just as easily into recollections of the kind of phenomena 13-year-old boys find so irresistible: cigarettes, loogies, and porn.
Because he grew up in a politically incorrect era, Smith uses terminology some may find offensive, but I'd rather to hear what kids in Seattle were actually saying in 1966—Catholic or otherwise—than a sanitized version, which means he indicts himself for having once used words like "coon" with no thought for the hurt they could cause. And it's not as if he didn't have black friends; it's more that he had internalized the invisible line dividing one half of his neighborhood from the other.
While walking through the Capitol Hill of today, lovingly shot by Stranger Genius Award winner Ben Kasulke, he gives voice to nuns, parents, and friends—including their silly songs and dirty poems—while Fetzer adds audiovisual interest by way of maps, photographs, jump cuts, animated chapter dividers, and a refreshingly subtle score (as much as I liked The Case Against 8, the score could be grating).
As part of this year's SIFF, Roman Polanski also offers a filmed play, Venus in Fur, an adaptation of David Ives' two-person production (the off-Broadway version featured Hannibal's Hugh Dancy). It's one of several filmed plays in Polanski's filmography, including Death and the Maiden and (God of) Carnage. His attractively staged, French-language adaptation stars Mathieu Amalric (who also appears in The Dune) and Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. It gets off to a promising start, but once the tit-for-tat devolves into revenge and humiliation, he lost me.
There's less star power in Fetzer's first feature, at least for those unfamiliar with Smith's work, which ranges from shoestring productions to studio features like Sleepless in Seattle, but I preferred it, not least because Smith doesn't moralize like Polanski-by-way-of-Ives, who revels in kink before indicting the audience for their enjoyment of the S&M hijinks that ensues between Seigner's actress and Amalric's director. I guess you could say it's even more Catholic than My Last Year with the Nuns, but Smith reserves any judgment for himself and his culture. The flagellation is metaphorical rather than literal, but the sting remains.